Ever since early pioneers pushed westward into the Rocky Mountain area, cooks have found problems with food preparation at higher elevations. Staple items, such as potatoes and beans, do not cook in the same timeframe as in low altitudes, and favorite cake recipes sometimes fail dismally. Even today, people moving from lower elevations to Colorado or other mountainous regions are puzzled by problems of high altitude cooking. In addition, standard cookbooks and periodical recipes are generally written for low altitude cooking. Cooking difficulties are due to differences in atmospheric pressure. The pressure of the air is greatest at sea level and becomes less as the altitude increases. Generally, there is no need to make recipe adjustments up to 3000 feet. As the elevation becomes greater, however, the challenges also become greater. This decrease in atmospheric pressure affects baked products, sugar cookery, jelly and puddings, deep fat frying, and canning procedures. Decreases in atmospheric pressure permit faster evaporation of water and other liquids, greater expansion of leavening gases, and lower boiling points, all of which affect food preparation.
With lower atmospheric pressure, the temperature required for water to boil is less. Therefore, cooking food in water boiling at this lower temperature takes longer. An increase in cooking time is needed for vegetables such as green and wax beans, beets, cauliflower, and onions. To preserve the bright green color in green vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts and green beans, cook them for a few minutes with the lid off, then cover tightly for the remainder of the cooking time. Acids that could affect the color escape from the pan at the beginning of the cooking period. Spinach is an exception, it should be covered throughout cooking and cooked for only a short time, just until the leaves are wilted and the ribs are tender.
High altitude has its most pronounced effect on the rising of bread. Dough doubles in size faster at higher altitudes than at lower altitudes. The higher the altitude, the shorter the time required for dough to double its size. However, bread needs to rise in the bowl (ferment) for a certain length of time in order to develop a good “nut-like” flavor and a light, tender texture. For this reason, it’s best to allow the full bowl-rising time given in your recipe, but you can punch the dough down when it doubles its bulk. Another hint on bread baking at high altitudes: flours tend to be drier and thus able to absorb more liquid in high, dry climates. Therefore, you may need less flour to get the proper dough consistency.
Since most recipes for breadmakers are not written for high altitude, some adjustments are necessary so over-fermentation does not occur. Try reducing yeast to 1-1/2 teaspoons per 3 cups of flour, increase salt to 1-1/2 teaspoons, increase liquid to 1-1/2 cups + 1 tablespoon per 3 cups of flour, add 1-1/2 teaspoons gluten. Research shows that using the sweet dough cycle is best for white bread to control fermentation and allow more gluten to develop.
Biscuits, Muffins and Quick Breads
Although the cell structure is firm enough to withstand the increased internal pressure at high altitudes without adjustment, a bitter or alkaline flavor may result from inadequate neutralization of the baking soda or powder. When this occurs, reducing the baking soda or powder slightly will usually improve results. Rich quick breads with a cake-like texture are more delicately balanced and usually benefit from adjustments for altitude. A quick bread that adjusted properly for altitude has a light reduction in the proportion of leavening agents, fat, and sugar, and/or a slight increase in the proportion of eggs or liquid ingredients. Using smaller pans and increasing the baking temperature 15 to 25 degrees F may also help them from falling.
In cakes, too much rising stretches the cells, making the texture coarse, or breaks the cells, causing the cake to fall. If the rising occurs too quickly, the cake batter may even spill over the top of the pan. Fill pans only two-thirds full. When problems do occur with cakes made with shortening or other fat, they can usually be corrected by decreasing the baking powder or soda. Also, increasing the baking temperature 15-25 degrees F “sets” the batter before cells formed by leavening gases expand too much. Also consider decreasing sugar in the recipe and/or increase liquid. You may need to reduce the amount of shortening or fat, or add an extra egg to help strengthen the cell structure. Don’t assume that all sea-level recipes will fail, make only one adjustment at a time in a recipe until you find the right combination of corrections.
Modifications may include a slight increase in baking temperature, a slight decrease in baking powder or soda, fat, and/or sugar, and/or a slight increase in liquid ingredients and flour. Many cookie recipes contain a higher proportion of sugar and fat than necessary.